In the last few days, as I have continued to read the massive outpouring of writing supporting libraries, I have come across one or two pieces that have disturbed me somewhat. Sounding the death-knell for libraries as we know them is of course disturbing for a librarian! However, maybe it is necessary to read pieces like these occasionally so that people like me can re-assess our opinions. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have a passionate belief in the power of libraries and librarians to make a difference. So, to be honest, some aspects of what I have read have made me very annoyed, but I will try to answer some of the points in a measured way, with an emphasis on school libraries.
What is a library?
What these pieces seem to have in common for me is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a library is. In my view, a library is not simply a warehouse or museum for books. It is not even a store-room for a range of resources – books, magazines, DVDs, electronic databases, e-books and so on. Neither is it just a place where people visit to borrow resources or to sit and read or study. A library is much more than this. From my point of view as a school librarian, a library for me is a place where reading for pleasure is encouraged and developed, where the school community is supported with information literacy and where developing technologies are seamlessly blended into the learning and teaching experience. There are other roles – for example, often libraries fulfil a pastoral need for many students. Libraries can be virtual places too – many school libraries have extensive websites offering 24/7 access to resources, teaching materials and professional support – enabling us to reach out into our communities beyond the physical space.
The other thread in this “death of libraries” meme comes from the growth in e-book development and Amazon’s announcement of a massive increase in e-book purchasing. Well, of course, they sold shedloads of their Kindle e-book readers at Christmas and so people need something to read on their shiny new toys! It would be interesting to know how many of these end up at the back of cupboards a few months into 2011. But that is an aside. Again, predictions in technology development are extremely risky and we don’t really know how quickly e-books will take over the world, if they actually do. Certainly, there are massive issues for libraries unless we can get agreements from publishers and other organisations to put affordable lending models in place for school and public libraries.
The “death of libraries” commentators quite often seem to assume that our students can afford to buy all of the books they want – whether electronic or paper. E-books are not free unless they are out of copyright, downloaded illegally or made available as an enticement to make more purchases. Nor is everything yet available as an e-book – although that may come. Many books may not be suitable for digital conversion and the vast array of archival materials may never be fully digitised. Nor do all students have devices for reading e-books – most do have mobile phones of course, but there will always be some students who do not. Many students I speak to every day are not enticed by e-books and prefer printed books – this may change, of course, but there are still significant numbers of young people who are not keen on some kinds of technology.
The joys of browsing
What libraries offer, which bookshops and online retailers do not, is the concept of risk-free browsing and serendipity together with expert advice. In my school, many students can afford to buy every book that they want. But the library enables them to find books that they didn’t know existed and take a “risk” with reading something different with no financial penalty! If they don’t like the book, they can bring it back with no loss. They can share good reads with each other in class, during book groups, using our reading development wiki or with informal chat. The librarian can build a relationship with students to make a personalised suggestion for their next read, far better than the recommendations of online retailers. The same goes for information-seeking. Very few students or teachers know the exact resource that will help to answer their needs – the library exists to help support the curriculum and extra-curricular interests using the guidance of the librarian.
Yes, we can and should discuss the future direction of libraries. Nothing should be set in stone. We should be looking at a space for a range of activities: a place for study, for quiet reading, for exciting teaching and learning, for creativity and imagination. We need to talk about what that space could look like. In my own school, we tried to make a new library that would fit the needs of our school community, marrying a traditional feel on the one hand and also building in features for our future needs (although those are notoriously difficult to predict). That is why our library has the words “Think, Ask, Read, Imagine, Create” on all of our publications and displays. Many school libraries around the world are being developed with these ideas of imagination and creativity being at the forefront – the library as a place for making things, broadcasting, and even performance!
The Librarian is the Library
The biggest issue that I have with so many of these “Libraries RIP” pieces is how often librarians are ignored or only added in as an afterthought. The librarian is the person who makes the space a library, rather than a collection of resources housed in a room. A good librarian makes the service personal in the school – we get to know our community and create that personal interaction that is vital in such a busy world. It seems to me that if a headteacher can write a post about libraries and not once mention the librarian, what does that say about the status of the librarian in that school? Why are the talents of a professionally qualified person not being showcased or even used properly? Does the headteacher actually understand what the librarian does?
In my own school, we were clear that the development of the new library was only the start of my job. Once it was open, even though we had the furniture, resources and ICT equipment, my work was then really beginning! My job is now to work with the school community to put the library at the heart of teaching and learning so that our students achieve their potential and are prepared for their future studies in Higher Education or for the working world. To achieve this, I go back to the main functions of my role, as I and my Headmaster see them:
- The development of reading for pleasure – helping our students to enjoy their reading journeys, with books, magazines, graphic novels, online resources.
- Helping our students to improve their information literacy skills – working collaboratively with teaching staff to support students’ research skills and help them handle a range of media effectively. Preparing them for HE means a lot more than being able to use Wikipedia!
- Supporting my school with the use of developing technologies – by showcasing innovative use of hardware such as flip video cameras, IWBs, mobile phones or Web2.0 sites such as Animoto, VoiceThread, wikis and blogs in teaching and learning.
No, libraries are not dead yet! And in my heart, I believe they never will be!
This piece has now got rather too long for a blog post! I will stop now and open this to comments – what do you see as the future for libraries and school libraries in particular? What is your imaginative thinking? How do you see librarians developing our role?
These are some of the articles that set me thinking:
School Libraries RIP? The debate begins…, by Mark S Steed
A great reply to this one from Nicola McNee:
“School Libraries RIP? – an open reply to An Independent Head, by Nicola McNee
Some Simple Thoughts About Libraries, by Joe Craig
Edit: I have since come across these two articles as well:
2010 Summary: libraries are still screwed, by Eric Hellman
2010: the year of the cloud, by Doug Johnson
I found these last two via the wonderful Skerricks blog: